Once sitting with Ronald Reagan, he retold a story to me. It was entertaining, actually funny, but becomes sobering on a day when a French President can speak of fearing the United States – this nation which twice in one century rose en mass, fought with all our hearts, and died in hundreds of thousands on French soil, to save the French people from fascism. President Emanuel Macron should reread his history.
Our day was sunny. Sitting with President Reagan, there was no pressure. Just a former White House staffer, visiting. On the wall, a photo hung of President Reagan with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On my noticing it, Reagan told the story.
At an early G-7 meeting, he entered a room and saw Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sitting in a chair. Over her, filled with emotion and wagging a finger, was liberal Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, father of the current Canadian liberal.
Patiently, Thatcher listened as Trudeau lectured her on how wrong her attention to certain aspects of history, conservatism and way of viewing the world was. In time, Trudeau drifted off. Thatcher rose and quietly headed down a hallway. Reagan caught up with her, and said “Maggie, why did you let him get away with that? He had no right to speak that way to you …” To which, Reagan recounted, she turned to him with a smile and said, “Ron, a woman must know when a man is being simply childish.” And in the retelling, Reagan laughed aloud – he loved it.
Now, we come to Macron and his utterly misplaced, oddly dismissive, and objectively inappropriate comments this weekend about the United States, and our role in the past, present and future of Europe.
First, Macron announces, jarringly at the 100th anniversary of Word War I’s Armistice, that he favors a “European Army” to defend against the likes of China, Russia and – yes – against “the United States of America.”
So, one is tempted to ask, do the 4 million Americans who rose to defend Europe in World War I, the more than 116,000 who died, the more than 200,000 who were wounded, and the many Americans cemeteries across France count for nothing? We, who in that devastating war, turned the tide after 1917, ending the conflict that would have ended France?
Or perhaps Macron has forgotten that France – the entire existence of the country and society – would have perished, but for intercession of the United States in World War II. To end that world-changing horror, Americans sent 16 million men and women into combat. Of that group, more than 416,000 died. Many of those Americans died in places like Normandy, the Argonne, Battle of the Bulge, and on blood soaked French battlefields.
Then, the French President went one better. On Sunday, adding “insult” – yes, President Trump was correct, if unduly direct – to injury (and death), Macron gave a speech saying that Americans who embrace the idea of their unique national identity, pride in their nation as a source of global courage, what dictionaries describe interchangeably as “patriotism” and “nationalism,” are “selfish.”
Said Macron to 60 global leaders, Americans should instead focus on “universal values” – as if we had not defended exactly those values in two world wars, and do not have them enshrined in our Bill of Rights. With strange focus on the United States, Macron solemnly rejected the “selfishness of nations looking after their own interests.”
So, on this seminal 100th anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, in a country twice saved by the blood and treasure of Americans, on a continent rebuilt with American citizen’s tax dollars, we were lectured by a young, unschooled and apparently even unpopular in France leader, who needed to take America to task.
This listener’s reaction is hard to put into words. Members of my own family who fought in World Wars I and II lie at Arlington. For one moment, I pondered what they might make of this revealing show of consummate adolescence, historical impertinence and brazen indifference to history.
For a moment, the image of hundreds of thousands of American families listening to this lecture, as if the French leader was leaning over some relative of theirs – long since buried – as he sat in an armchair, flashed by me. How could a French President take Americans to task, on the 100th anniversary of the seminal WWI Armistice? It was unthinkable.
Then I thought of Reagan and Thatcher. I thought of how simple, selfless courage, inner peace and unruffled dignity respond to impertinence in all ages. Even today, their shared optimism, attitude and wisdom echoes brightly. “A woman must know” – and men, too – “when a man is being simply childish.” Macron cannot – with an ill-timed lecture – change facts: America saved freedom, France and all Europe in World Wars I and II.
Here is the sobering kicker. Whatever Mr. Macron thinks, it is in our nature to fight for what is right – and if push came to shove, make no mistake: We would do it again. Because, Mr. Macron, that is America. That is who we Americans are.
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